At about 4 p.m. Wed., Dec. 16, City Paper witnessed Taylor Allderdice high school students Salat Abdalla and Abdulkadir Abdi being cuffed and cited for trespassing following an incident at the Wood Street T Station. Both say they were merely waiting at their usual bus stop Downtown to catch a transfer to their home in Northview Heights, and never set foot inside the station.
Earlier, at 3:17 p.m., Port Authority police caught a Brashear high school student allegedly pressing an escalator emergency-off button. According to PAT police, the teenager refused to provide identification, attempted to run, then kicked officers as he was being apprehended. Commotion followed as a result, and backup from Pittsburgh Police and Allegheny County Sheriffs arrived as crowds grew to witness the scene on the sidewalk. Allegheny County Sheriff William Mullen said last week that his deputies responded to a call from PAT police about bricks and bottles being thrown.
Then at 3:30 p.m., CP took video of another male teen being apprehended and thrown to the ground. Then police attempted to disperse the crowds, but the tense situation included at least one Pittsburgh Police officer cursing at and pushing over a teenage girl with his baton. That same officer was later caught on video brandishing his baton and yelling at a CP reporter.
The videos have garnered regional attention, and the Pittsburgh Citizens Police Review Board has opened an inquiry into the officer in question. The Pittsburgh Police Department is also investigating the officer’s actions.
But it’s the issues of those cited that might deserve the most scrutiny. Abdalla, 17, and Abdi, 16, wonder why they were detained and issued citations, when they say they had nothing to do with the commotion.
Port Authority spokesperson Adam Brandolph wrote in an email Monday that “Port Authority police took those two juveniles into custody because they ignored multiple warnings to disperse from the large crowd that had formed outside Wood Street Station.” On Friday, Brandolph wrote in an initial email that the juveniles involved were cited for throwing rocks: “They were issued citations because they threw rocks at police officers and failed to disperse when they were instructed to do so.”
Abdi and Abdalla say, however, that they didn’t throw rocks and were arrested for no reason about 45 minutes after the initial incident. Abdalla says he was waiting at their bus stop on the north side of Liberty Avenue with his friend and nephew Abdi, when a Port Authority police officer told him he was trespassing and to “get out of there.” Abdalla then questioned how he was trespassing.
“But there were many other people standing right there,” says Abdalla. “Why couldn’t they tell them that they were trespassing?”
Two CP reporters witnessed the arrests of Abdalla and Abdi and saw close to two dozen bystanders near the teens.
Abdalla says that the officer then said, “I am talking to you, and you better get out of here, you are trespassing.” Abdalla says that when he was about to leave with Abdi, a police officer moved close to Abdi and said, “Get your ass outta here.”
“Why would you get up in someone’s face like that, like you were about to fight them?” says Abdalla. “[Abdi] is just a teenager.”
Abdalla says that Abdi verbally questioned why the officer was acting aggressively toward him. Abdi was then apprehended and pushed up against the wall. Abdalla asked the officer why he was arresting Abdi. Then, Abdalla says, they apprehended and cuffed him, too.
“We were trying to mind our business, and we were trying to get home,” says Abdalla. “We always wait for our bus at that stop. Other people were standing at that bus [stop] too, but [the officer] had to pick on us. I feel like I was arrested just for asking, ‘Why are you arresting my nephew?’”
According to the family members of those arrested, an unusual coincidence suggests an explanation: All five teenage males arrested were part of an East African refugee community. The older sister of the one adult arrested, who goes by Fatuma R., says that she finds the whole situation highly questionable.
“Why did the police only pick these gentlemen, when they are all from Africa?” she asks. “When something happened like this, shouldn’t more people be arrested? Were they waiting for these kids?”
Both Abdalla and Abdi are Somali Bantu, a minority group that escaped persecution during the Somali civil war of the early 1990s. However, the teens dress in standard Western clothing, speak fluent English with little to no accent, and have lived in America since they were young children. They are also American citizens.
Abdalla did say that while he was waiting for the bus, he and Abdi were talking on the phone to relatives and were sometimes speaking in one of their native languages in close proximity to police officers. He also says they were standing next to and talking to some female African students, who wear traditional head scarves.
PAT’s Brandolph says that Abdalla and Abdi were arrested because of their actions and “were not issued citations because of their ethnicity, religion, what clothing those associated with them were wearing, or the language they spoke.” He adds that the whole situation could have been avoided had the student who allegedly hit the emergency-stop button complied with officers. “Instead, he chose to run, resist and kick the officers,” wrote Brandolph. “Pressing the emergency shut-off button on an escalator may be seen as ‘just a prank’ to some, but some pranks have consequences.”
Brandolph said PAT police have “reviewed the incident at length … and have found nothing about our officers’ handling of the situation to be problematic or contrary to their training.”
But this idea that one bad apple, a refugee from Burundi, led to the arrests of four other East African refugees, still does not sit well for that small community living in Northview Heights.
“This shows us that one African maybe did a mistake, so does that mean all the Africans have to be punished?” says Fatuma. “We are scared for our family. We are scared the police officers might abuse our kids’ lives. We don’t trust them anymore.”